Wrong answer, try again

cartoon of a woman riding an out of control horse


Training a horse is simple. Ask a question, get a response, leave it alone. A simple system of three parts, yet each part is a unique opportunity for a galloping housewife to stuff it up.


Asking the question is the aid you use or the cue you give for the behaviour. It doesn’t matter what aid you decide to associate with each behaviour, the important thing is that your horse can understand it. Which means it should build on the responses you already have. You can’t teach a shoulder in without go and bend and turn and yield already in place. One you have it’s perfectly reasonable to trot down the long side (go), position your horse to the inside (bend), turn as if going across the diagonal and ask your horse to yield away from your inside leg on three tracks.


The response is the horse’s responsibility and it matters not a jot what that response is. In fact, for the consolidation of learning, it is best if he makes some kind of mistake in his initial attempt – horses learn through trial and error. What the mistake is will tell you where the gap in your training is – slowing down means he needs to be reminded that once you put him in a pace, at a certain amount of energy, he needs to stay there until he is asked to do something else, not bending and turning means a steering failure, not crossing over on your line means your yield needs strengthening.


If you get no response, then you need to back up your aids – a tap with your whip, a vibrating rein, whatever your next step is. If you get the wrong answer, you just need to ask again. The key here, is that you need to ask the question in exact the same manner as you did the first time. It’s the answer that is wrong, not the question.


You don’t ever punish your horse for giving you the wrong answer. He’s not being naughty, he simply doesn’t know what you want him to do. Every time you punish a horse, you’re telling him not to try and believe me, if you’re ever going to teach him a flying change or to piaffe, you want him to try everything he can think of. If he does the wrong thing, even if it is explosive, just stop him and ask again.


The final step is the most important. Once you get the right answer, especially if it’s the first time you’ve asked this particular question – bloody well leave it alone! Stop, long rein, pat him. Then go on to something else or even consider leaving your session for the day if the lesson is a big one. You might be tempted to reinforce the exercise, but if you give it even one more go, there’s every chance you’ll do the opposite.


Imagine if your teacher asked you the same question over and over and over again. What day is it? Tuesday. What day is it? The 21st. What day is it? Labour Day? What day is it? I don’t bloody know, what the hell do you want?!


Leave it alone. Horse training is done by negative reinforcement – the removal of the question. The occasional positive reinforcement (praise, treat, clicker) can cement the process in some cases, but this should be intermittent for best results, and obviously can’t be used in competition or in real world emergencies. It’s not ideal if Trigger is looking for a peppermint as the 18 wheeler that you’ve just yielded away from barrels down upon you at speed.


This is a lesson for everyone. The galloping housewife’s students will know that she believes that all who handle horses are horse trainers. You’re either training him or undoing his training in every interaction. It’s best if you stick to the former.


NB: this method works just as well for dogs, children and partners. Be consistent, set your boundaries, and it’s all about good contact.


  • Hi Samantha, thanks for your question – it’s a really important point to make. Your understanding about reinforcement is why negative reinforcement has a bad name. Negative is nothing about whether the reinforcement is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Negative reinforcement is always the removal of a stimulus that precipitates a response, Positive reinforcement is the addition of a reward that follows a response. I hope this has cleared that up for you.

    the galloping housewife
  • Love this, but wouldn’t you consider removing the question (releasing the pressure) to be a POSITIVE reinforcement, especially from the horse’s perspective?


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